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It is almost impossible to describe how I felt as I walked through the soon-to-be completed TIFF Bell Lightbox on an intimate tour of the venue last week. I’m not sure what I was expecting, a cold, unfeeling space with too much utility and not enough thought? A slick over-the-top movie theatre? A film museum with artifacts everywhere a la Hollywood North ““ a Canadian Planet Hollywood, if you will? Any or all of these could have been options for the often debated much anticipated new home of TIFF and its year-round activities. What I found as I stepped with my hardhat and rubber boots onto the “slate red carpet” and into the entrance of Toronto’s newest film exhibition space was instead a welcoming, thoughtful, purpose-built public space that will engage, encourage, educate and inspire cinephiles the city over. Regardless of what I thought before I walked in, it became immediately clear to me that TIFF Bell Lightbox was lovingly crafted with only one purpose in mind: the love of film.

As Noah Cowan, Artistic Director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, stands comfortably in his work boots in the main hall of TIFF Bell Lightbox, it’s clear that he has given this tour many times, but it’s also clear that he won’t tire of it. Instead he seems just as energized by the space as I am. He describes the purpose of the main hall: To introduce the visitor to the many ways film can be experienced at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It is the central area that connects all three levels of the space and from here the visitor can see the main exhibition hall on the ground floor, the Promenade level with three movie theatres, and the learning floor at the top, with two theatres of its own and a host of spaces for interaction with this incredible medium. Three display screens and a box office with six stations complement the space, welcoming and engaging visitors. And engage you it does. Even unfinished the cavernous intimacy of the hall creeps up and gently whispers, “this is for you .”

The rest of the tour goes by like a blur. First, the beautiful, open gallery space that will host TIFF’s first new exhibition, Essential Cinema, a free exhibit highlighting some of “cinema’s greatest treasures,” that will open the space on September 12. Cowan notes that Essential Cinema is a “serious exhibition with a playful heart,” intended to have visitors “swimming in the history of cinema.” The portion of this gallery that faces King Street has energized a number of artists, and will play host to a series of Toronto premieres. Not the least of these is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro, a fascinating piece that slows down two prints of Hitchcock’s famous film to a run-time of 24 full hours, each running at a different position, meeting only on the shower scene. As if this is not enough, Tim Burton Studios is creating a special Christmas themed piece that will occupy this room in November, which will be dedicated to the director’s roots as a visual artist.

Next we move through the labyrinthine stairwells that connect the inner workings of the building. We arrive on the Promenade floor and are led into Cinema 1, the 550 seat theatre that will host some of the most exciting film programming that TIFF Bell Lightbox has to offer. With seats so comfortable you’ll never want to leave, a completely sound neutral environment (you won’t hear a streetcar from below or an explosion from the theatre next door) and a stage to add another dimension to viewing film, it’s clear that this space was built to maximize the experience of film.

Up to the learning floor, Cowan describes the many, many initiatives Bell Lightbox is already involved in. The film schools of Toronto will participate in “Higher Learning Fridays”, where Cinema 4 ““ more much more intimate, but no less comfortable, than Cinema 1 ““ will allow tomorrow’s filmmakers to come together to share in the vast learning opportunities that only TIFF can offer. During the 2010 festival, however, this space will host an immersive experience by Atom Egoyan called 8 ½ Screens in which the interconnectivity between the audience and the screen is challenged. This floor is also the new home of the Film Reference Library. When complete it will be decorated with posters and key artifacts from TIFF’s history. In the back of the Library is a small exhibition space where there will be a tribute to Brian Linehan at the time of opening, and a subsequent tribute to Mary Pickford near the end of the year.

It is not actually possible to describe everything I felt, saw and heard on this tour, but really, that’s the point. TIFF Bell Lightbox has been specifically created to enhance the experience of film and, as such, it has to be experienced to be understood. What I can only hope to impress upon you is that the team behind TIFF Bell Lightbox loves film as much as you do, and they built this space as much for themselves as they did for you. They created a space that will completely immerse you in the films you love; a space both for Toronto and of Toronto. It will energize you and engage you and send you running for more. Unlike many of the cultural spaces in this city, there is no admission to get into the building, only to visit the many exhibitions (although, all exhibitions during the 11 days of the 2010 festival are free), which means that you can go and surround yourself with film and film lovers whenever you please. So I will wait with considerable anticipation ““ and some goosebumps! ““ until it is filled with people and artifacts. And I can’t wait to see you there.

Noah Cowan was kind enough to answer some of Toronto Film Scene’s questions about TIFF Bell Lightbox. You can read Katarina   Gligorijevic’s interview here.